- Interview by Crime Fiction Coordinator Scott Montgomery
Our Pick Of The Month, Denise Mina’s The Long Drop, looks at the famous Scottish trial of Peter Manuel, a small time thief charged with the murders of three women. We also flash back to years earlier with a pub crawl for the ages, as Manuel takes William Watt, the husband and father of two of the victims, who was also a suspect, out on the town. The book is a dark look at class, media, and crime. We caught up with Denise to talk about those subjects and the period the story takes in.
MysteryPeople Scott: You often use true crime and scandal as a basis for your stories, changing names and details, but here you stuck close to story with part of the fiction taking place in the shadows of the events. What was it it about this murder and trial that made you stick closer to the history with the many of the real events and names?
Denise Mina: I had to stick close to the real story because it simply wasn’t credible as fiction. Usually I take a premise or an interesting idea but this story was so odd I felt it needed told the way it happened. OJ and Polanski set out to ‘turn detective’ and solve the murders they were involved with, so that was transferable, but the rest it was particular to that story. Also everyone in it was dead and they didn’t have kids to upset so I figured it would be okay.
MPS: This was also the first time you went back into a time you went back to a time you didn’t experience yourself. How did you tackle that challenge?
DM: I wrote it as a play originally and it was produced in Glasgow so I was pretty steeped in it even before I began the researched the book. This period is when Glasgow’s reputation was made, Like Detroit in the 1960s and it felt very familiar. I got too into it actually. I could feel that old city more than the pretty, latte-and-sushi hipster place Glasgow of now.
MPS: What did the novel allow you to do that writing it as a play didn’t?
DM: The novel let me tell the story as an internal voice so I could go into the actor’s minds and see how it looked from their POV. Most of the facts presented to the court were obvious lies, everyone came forward because they were trying to do the right thing, even life long criminals, the cops all told the truth because they were cops etc. In serial killer stories what is often most interesting is the way people behave around them, rather than what they do.
MPS: I read in reviews that Watts is less sympathetic in the book than he was in the play. Did you come to a different understanding of him between projects?
DM: In the original play Watt was a nicer guy who has innocently stumbled into a freaky situation. A lot of older people came to see it and they cornered me at the end and told me that I had told it wrong. The official story was that Watt, a prominent businessman, was innocent. That was the finding of the trial. But the old dears said it was more complicated than that. The story in the city was that Watt took the guard dog away from the house on the night of the murders. It was much better.
MPS: Class plays an important part important part of the novel and many of your others. What makes that an interesting theme for you to explore?
DM: Part of the beauty of crime novels is that they can span society. Class is a natural source of conflict but largely unspoken. Class of origin, adoptive social class, aspiration, these are all major sources of social identity. Honestly, I bang on about it so much, I’m starting to feel like a lonely Marxist professor who should have retired years ago.
MPS: Do you think these murders would be just as shocking and be the media sensation today?
DM: Definitely. There is something uniquely creepy about home invasions and eating in a house where you’ve just killed people is revolting, somehow. Of course, the added element as in Bundy, was the fact that Manuel was attractive and represented himself. He was a pretty clever little psychopath.
You can find copies of The Long Drop on our shelves and via bookpeople.com.